The new wave of animation

New styles and creative innovation are always in demand in the field of animation. Garrick Webster looks at how designers and illustrators are shaking up the motion design world.

When Nexus Productions signed Minivegas to their group of directors in January, it demonstrated one of the emphatic trends going on in animation at the moment; while Minivegas's animation skills are indubitable, we suspect that Nexus was just as interested in the more experimental work Luc Schurgers and Dan Lewis have been doing. The voice-triggered video idents for S4C and more recent interactive sculpture projects show that Minivegas has no trouble combining innovative coding and illustration with motion content.

The modern world of animation wants more from its creatives than the ability to manage a timeline, add an effect or make characters shake their booties. Aesthetic judgement and attention to detail are necessities. The myriad of styles and the crafting capabilities of today's illustrators bring texture and authenticity to the mix. The recipe also requires dollops of experimentation and innovation. As with Minivegas, that might involve playing with code, or it could mean storytelling skills, a great eye for detail or a gregarious let's-try-it attitude.

The world of animation is crying out for these ingredients because there are so many things clients want to animate. Movies and television have been around for decades, but today companies want to hit consumers via their mobile phones or the web - look at the rise of YouTube virals. There are animated posters in airports, underground stations and at bus stops. It's as though the still image is losing its significance.

Still rising
Yet a look at the selling points of the top animation houses quickly reinstates the validity of still image makers: inspirational US studio Buck's illustrators, artists and designers are equally as important to its business as the filmmakers and animators, and while Lifelong Friendship Society principally animates, it holds design and illustration in high esteem too. "We have a traditional print designer/ illustrator who turned towards animation," says LFS co-founder Travis Spangler. "We have an interactive designer that also turned towards animation. We have a pure animator that illustrates as well. We even have a math major that turned towards video editing and then design and animation."

A diversity of backgrounds is what makes animation studios successful, and if you come from an interesting field it really could improve your prospects. Carolina Melis, also with Nexus Productions, was a dancer before she became a designer, illustrator and animator. Choreography links her to the world of motion and timing in an intriguing way, and this shows through in both working process and finished work.

Designers and illustrators who do go into animation, either by directing or by getting into the nuts and bolts of making things move, might even have an advantage over those who are merely trained in animation software. The agencies that commission animation are awash with former graphic designers and illustrators. Johnny Kelly is one, and finds it useful that he can speak the same artistic language as the creative directors who commission him: "It helps being able to have a similar frame of reference. Illustration skills come in very handy when it comes to storyboarding and composition."

Lithuanian studio PetPunk - AKA Andrius Kirvela and Gediminas iaulys - benefits from a similarly broad skill set. PetPunk's abstract illustrations - one of which graces this issue's cover - have been in high demand since the studio formed in 2005. Through its animations, however, the studio has established a new medium for its individual style of work, with motion and still projects clearly interweaving in style and tone.

"I create the illustrations and designs, and pass these to Andrius, who brings those themes into dimension and time," explains iaulys, the illustrative half of the duo. "This approach works well as it means we have two skills which unite and complement each other."

New dimensions
Along with the obvious animation factors of time and movement, there's the more subtle opportunity to work with concepts like illusion and suggestion. However, without the kind of solid ideas that traditionally trained graphic designers can develop, there's a real danger that the new channels demanding animated content will end up filled with forgettable rubbish.

Nearly everyone who has stepped into animation agrees that the great maxim of design - less is more - is doubly important when images are put in motion. Olov Burman was an illustrator but now animates and directs with Swedish studio Meindbender. "The big difference in animation is of course that you get the extra dimension of time," he says. "The timing in the movement is important and extends to the poses of characters. You have to learn how to not present too much information in one picture."

It helps to understand and explore the limitations of the medium you're working in. As Travis Spangler at LFS points out, "People often forget the obvious - that we have a screen size to contend with, a limited field of view, a limited resolution and a limited amount of time. These can all put a damper on complexity."

Join the movement
For many illustrators moving to motion, the first challenge is simply to get something moving. Dutch artist Johan Potma created Zozoville with fellow artist Mateo. Potma has a unique style of painting characters onto wooden board, and things fell into place when Nickelodeon approached the duo about creating a spot for the channel. For the spot, they teamed up with Kaiserbrand Studios. "To make our painterly world come to life in animation we really had to do some thinking," recalls Potma. "We decided it would work best to go for a 2.5D approach: we would make the backgrounds appear flat, although they weren't, and have the characters in 3D in front. This way it would have the feel of a school play on a stage. 2D and 3D were constantly mixed, which came closest to our painted world."

One thing Potma emphasises is the enormous amount of work involved in animation compared to still images. "Mateo and I did too much of the work. I wrote the story, we did the sketching, storyboarding, character designing, art directing, vocal coaching, coffee-making, freaking out and some more art directing," he says. "In a perfect world I would want to work with a team that has a really good understanding of my work, then just stick to the character design and let the studio do what they do best."

The price of frames
A common trap for new animators is trying to make every frame perfect. But if you break even the finest animations down frame by frame, many of the stills will look disjointed or ill-composed. The challenge is to pare back the detail - don't get too bogged down in composition and colour palette, and make it work as a whole.

This may affect an artist's style - but then in animation the whole notion of style needs careful consideration. For Siri Melchior, a founding director at Trunk in London, having one style can be limiting, particularly if your goal is directing animation. She says: "For an animation director to survive with only one style would be quite difficult, unless you are making big features like Aardman. My work is really directing, and the design is somehow dependent on this. From my own experience, the pitches we get for commercial work are varied and usually need very different solutions. I think it is possible and very interesting to work in different media and styles but still have a signature kind of look, although this may sometimes come from the direction of the piece rather than design."

One solution is constant experimentation. Like many animators, Carolina Melis has been fascinated recently by stop-motion, and has been using Dragon Stop Motion with After Effects. To create ice- and snow-forming effects, Melis made perfectly round lumps of ice and captured in stop motion the ice balls melting into Instant Snow Powder, a product that forms white crystal structures when it comes in contact with water. In some sequences she projected images onto her stop motion set.

After Effects specialist Yoram Benz makes innovation part of his process too, as seen in his viral for extreme bike brand Teva. Like many of Benz's pieces, the finished work combines live action with 2D animated elements. "They wanted to have extreme bikers do tricks over crazy obstacles," he explains of the client brief. "The first thing I thought of was a dual between biker and obstacle, then I thought of Don Quixote fighting the windmills, which kind of opened the door into turning these obstacles into animated monsters, enhancing the original idea of having bikers doing tricks. We turned what was going to be a conventional extreme bike viral into something more conceptual and fun to watch."

There's a spirit of exploration running through the world of animation and, as LFS's Travis Spangler points out, it really is possible to be a pioneer in the field. "See what is possible, see what you like, try some software and some techniques," he advises. "It's still a burgeoning field - you can pioneer something too! Don't be afraid to do something unique; don't let the nifty effects do the talking; do what is right for your style and approach, and don't let go of that."